We investigate the microsecond-timescale kinetics of the RNA hairpin ga*cUUCGguc. The fluorescent nucleotide 2-aminopurine (a*) reports mainly on base stacking. Ten kinetic traces and the temperature denaturation curve are globally fitted to four-state models of the free-energy surface. In the best-fitting sequential model, the hairpin unfolds over successively larger barriers in at least three stages: stem fraying and increased base-stacking fluctuations; concerted loss of hydrogen bonding and partial unstacking; and additional unstacking of single strands at the highest temperatures. Parallel and trap models also provide adequate fits: such pathways probably also play a role in the complete free-energy surface of the hairpin. To interpret the model states structurally, 200 ns of molecular dynamics, including six temperature-jump simulations, were run. Although the sampling is by no means comprehensive, five different states were identified using hydrogen bonding and base stacking as reaction coordinates. The four to five states required to explain the experiments or simulations set a lower limit on the complexity of this small RNA hairpin's energy landscape.
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